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Lessons of the 50th Birthday Party

February 20, 2014

“I tell you, friends, to live and experience things is what a good man does. In the richness of his life he is surrounded by friends and family who help him, and so it is as I accumulate more and more things that I am, now, truly…”

No, it wasn’t my 50th birthday party. For all the habits and mannerisms I’ve tried to cultivate over the years, I do not hold a candle to some of the people there a few weeks ago (though I wrote this article the night after the party). Yet, through the experience of being at such an event as a friend of my father’s (John’s) 50th birthday, and hearing of knowledge accumulated from their past, we learn. And there were many lessons.

Firstly, embrace a time-honoured cordiality. When I arrived I was slightly overdressed. I took off my coat of course, but that combined with the family vs. friends dichotomy that can emerge at such events as this led me to be slightly apart from some of the conversations. Then John’s father came over and we had a good talk. Now, it wasn’t that the conversations was earth shattering, though it was a few notches above the perfunctory ‘so, you’re doing your HSC? Where do you go to school? Ah… well…’ . What really mattered though was that I was brought into conversation at a time where I was slightly distant from the others there, and made to belong. And that makes a big difference.

Secondly, I was charmed to see John’s niece taking photographs of the evening and being extremely cordial and helpful. We’re talking about a 13 year old here. This girl was both able to be demure, yet vivacious and enthusiastic, while also doing a service to the man whose occasion we gathered for. Friends, it is hard to beat that at the tender age of 13. Yet let it serve as a reminder to us to exceed expectations, and do thoughtful deeds.

The evening then began to come together as everybody. Another good friend of John and my father arrived – Anthony we’ll call him – with his partner in tow, and then things took off. I hadn’t met Anthony’s partner before, and she was quite kind and charming. Anthony was gregarious as usual. The RSL was far better than I’d expected – the food was quite good with generous servings yet the prices very reasonable. The atmosphere was good. All these little things I couldn’t have foreseen, like John’s niece and her good conduct and the RSL exceeding expectations, they made the evening much better. Again, thoughtful actions matter. Also, it is a matter of us not necessarily loving big things so much as a series of small things. Finally, it is a matter of being not having great expectations, or being so judgemental as to be haughtily self-righteous.

Now, what was particularly different about it being a 50th birthday party?

Firstly, nearly everyone didn’t want to make the grand speeches I’d always associated with a 50th! The evening was really quite an informal affair! No long monologues that captivated the audience, just a few, well-placed curt words to everyone.

Yet, the topic of ‘being 50’ was most certainly there. You see, John met both Anthony and my father at university. That was over 30 years ago, and as they remarked a few times ‘barely older than you [me]’ . They were starting their lives ‘in the real world’ and yet now… they’ve spent most of their lives knowing each other. But also, I know some who look back and say ‘I never imagined my life being like this at 50 when I was 20’ , occasionally, sadly, because their life isn’t quite as idealistic as they would have liked. And that’s a reminder to us to seize the day, work hard, and build ourselves an extraordinary life.

Turning 50 is also the chance to make a series of jokes, be convivial and compliment each other. I wasn’t at my charming best, but I was doing fairly well throughout the evening, and we were all having a good time laughing with each other. So of course, with all the charisma and charming offhand joviality I can muster, I say to those assembled:

“Friends, you’re younger than you look.”

My father and John both take it in their stride of course. “A compliment from the young man about our good looks. Playing the part well, eh?” But Anthony sits there for a few seconds, mulling it over. He then looks at me and says something like “wait… you’re insulting us! You’re saying we look worse than our age!”

I was mortified. What a faux pas! But, it did generate some of the heartiest leaughter of the evening. So much so that I fear I won’t live it down. Of course, I profusely apologised, but children, if you don’t want to be remembered as such a clumsy fool, watch your words!

Okay, this post is dragging beyond belief, but there’s one final scene from last night that I ought to share. Anthony had asked my father if they were the same people as they were 30 years ago. It was on both their minds that their 50th birthday parties were just a few months away. My father said this:

“Anthony, I still think we’re the same people as we were 30 years ago. The people we were havent disappeared or changed, its just that we have more responsibilities that weigh us down, that create new aspects to us, while still leaving the old in place. We’re not 20 anymore, but we’re still the same people at heart.” Now, I just butchered what my father said, but you could see Anthony in a way wanted to be the same gregarious man he was at 20. I even remember 5 years to a New Years Eve party he was holding. He was the life of the party – a whirlwind of magnanimity, the great man. Yet now he’s just a bit more subdued. Of course, last night it wasn’t the thing to do to be the man of the party – that was John’s place last night. But… it is interesting to see how we change over time.

That’s why we must direct our lives with intentionality. Live your life with thought for what you do, build your future, become a better a person, so that you when you turn 50 you can say to yourself that you are the person that you wanted to be.

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